Friday, July 27, 2018

I think I'm afraid of Stephen King

I have a confession to make: I'm a big fan of Stephen King but I've only read one Stephen King novel, The Dark Half.  I used to enjoy his column for Entertainment Weekly.  His Twitter feed is fantastic - full of good recommendations and interesting opinions.  I admire how his books have permeated the culture.  And he seems like a good guy.  But aside from reading the one book, a novella, a short story or two, and an unfinished experiment with electronic publishing he tried a long time ago (The Plant) I haven't read much of his work.

King is so popular that one does not necessarily need to read the books to know about them.  I know all about It, The Stand, Cujo, Carrie, Misery, Under the Dome, The Shawshank Redemption, and many others, all by osmosis.  For several years now I have been REALLY wanting to read him.  No more FOMO for me.  So I tried.

He has a new novel out called The Outsider.  I skimmed a review or two and it looked like a good crime novel (which is what I really love to read) so I thought I would give it a try.  I got a nice, fat, clean new copy from the library and tore into it.  Thought it was great.  I mentioned to a friend who is a big King fan what I was doing and she told me that I had to stop reading The Outsider and go back and read Mr. Mercedes, the first of a three book series he wrote about a retired detective named Bill Hodges, because it ties into The Outsider.  I was miffed but this person knows her stuff so I complied.

I got a grubby, yellowed copy of Mr. Mercedes from the library and started.  And it was pretty good.  Until I got to the part where Mr. Mercedes, a mass murderer, accidentally kills his mother with gopher poison-laced ground hamburger and I had to stop.  I thought people were having fun reading Stephen King novels.  This was terribly disturbing.

I put Mr. Mercedes to the side and will go back to it in a few weeks.  I suppose it is a testament to King's skill that he could provoke such strong feelings in me.  And I guess I can't say I wasn't warned, I mean, all of America knows he's the king of horror.  But still, it threw me for a loop.

PS: I just found out Mr. Mercedes is now a TV show.  And I just heard a review of another Stephen King TV series, Caste Rock.  Castle Rock is sort of a mash up of dozens of Stephen King villains and properties, sort of like the BBC did with Dickensian a few years ago.  It's truly amazing that King's body of work is so vast and so well known that it is not possible to create a new show out of parts of his books.  And it makes me wonder if 150 years from now Stephen King will be remembered the same way or as well as Charles Dickens is now.  This makes me want to go back to the books, as soon as I recover from Mr. Mercedes.

The Spy's Wife by Reginald Hill

All this talk about Russian spies (the Novichok attacks in the UK, the daily revelations about Trump and the Russians, the Putin summit, the arrest of a Russian spy in Washington who infiltrated the NRA, and the final series of the Russian spy drama The Americans) has made me want to read about spies again.

Not too long ago I picked up Felony and Mayhem Press's reissue of Reginald Hill's The Spy's Wife (which was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1981, though it lost out to Dick Francis's Whip Hand) and a few Sundays ago I sat down with a cup of tea and started it.  I know Hill is best known for his Dalziel and Pascoe series of police procedurals but I had never read him before.

The book opens with a housewife doing the dishes one morning when her journalist husband suddenly returns home from the train station, runs upstairs, returns with a small case, and drives off again, only saying to her, without any context, "I'm sorry."  She does not know what to make of this.  Half an hour later, a man rings her doorbell looking for her husband, Sam Keating, the defense corespondent for The New Technocrat.  This is when she learns that her husband is a spy and has probably defected.  This is a complete shock to her as she had no knowledge her husband was a Soviet spy.  The agents questioning her don't believe she could be married for so long to a spy and not suspect it and as they are questioning her, in the second interesting twist in the book, Molly Keating discovers her inner spy and deflects these questions about her husband with skills she never knew she possessed.

I was expecting this story to develop into her tracking down her husband or something like that but what I got was far more (to me) interesting.  Instead of turning into some sort of chase, Molly leaves her home in the southeast of England and goes up north to Doncaster and her parents (where the book starts to feel like something by Alan Bennett - which I very much liked but I suppose feels out of place in a spy novel).  As she continues to deal with the British security agents who are trailing her to see if Sam makes contact, Molly finds herself having to look after her parents (her mother needs a hysterectomy and her father needs looking after as he is the sort of man who can only fend for himself at work and not at home).  She also has to fend off her old fiancee, his new wife, and a journalist who is after her story before news breaks of Sam's spying and defection .  Transformed by these events, she no longer acts like a timid housewife - she becomes something like a highly trained agent using the role of a housewife as cover. 

After spending much of the book in Doncaster, we eventually get to the foreign chase part of the book.  And a very good ending.  Can't say too much more because I don't want to spoil it.  On the whole, this was a very good book.  Hill doesn't deliver a straightforward spy novel - instead it is something much more like a detailed look of at a woman who turns out to be married to a spy and what happens when his double life comes crashing down.  I suspect most female readers would not be surprised to read a book about the domestic things women are expected to deal with but for your average male reader, this comes as a surprise. And a welcome one. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mick Herron!

Having been born long ago enough to have lived through some of the Cold War, I was too young to have been interested in reading spy fiction of the times.  And soon enough, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union dissolved, and most spy fiction seemed to become irrelevant.  Or implausible.  Or ridiculous.  (Invariably, one man racing against a ticking clock to prevent the destruction of the world.  And only this one man can do it.)

Maybe 20 tears after the end of the Cold War, enough time had passed for that era to become of interest again for me.  I read my first John le Carre novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and was blown away.  The vocabulary of espionage in that book was a revelation to me - some of the words I knew of, others were new, some real, and some invention.  And some having been coined by le Carre had passed into general usage:

safety signals
juju men
mailfist job

(Actually, I am no longer certain which words are real or made up or even in use.) 

But the question of what should come next had no good answer as far as I was concerned.  I'm generalizing but all of the spy fiction I saw looked formulaic or outdated.  Or farfetched.  Until I stumbled upon Mick Herron and his Slough House series.

In a nutshell, instead of having elite special agents populate a series, Herron has created a series stocked with agents from the trash bin.  If you screw up and MI5 thinks it will cost too much to fire you, you are exiled to a building called Slough House, where you are consigned to do mindless paperwork assignments until you quit.  (Denizens of Slough House are called slow horses.)  But it turns out that often these agents are not washed up - they've merely been disposed of by a corrupt or dysfunctional hierarchy or are scapegoats - and are still quite skilled. 

In the first book in the series, Slow Horses, they work to track down a domestic terror cell that is threatening to execute a hostage on the internet.  In Dead Lions, they investigate the death of an old spy whose death may have a connection to a Russian oligarch.  In Real Tigers, a slow horse is kidnapped and Slough House responds.  (There's also a novella called The List, concerning how old spies are looked after.) (And there's a great stand alone called Nobody Walks, set in the same fictional universe but not a part of the series.)

I devoured Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers, The List, and Nobody Walks way back in 2016 - which feels like YEARS ago.  Brexit and Trump's Russia scandal displaced my desire to read spy fiction for a while.  But the prolific Herron has since written two more Slough House novels, Spook Street (which I am currently reading) and London Rules.  He also managed to write another standalone thriller This is What Happened (which is waiting for me at the library).  And somehow he's had the time and energy to write another novella in the Slough House world set for this fall called The Drop.

All of these books are absolute page turners but yet are filled with fantastic detail and insight that does not bog down the reader.  The plots are all very relevant to the headlines (bad Russians, fundamentalists, sleeper cells, bad politicians, terrorisms, the internet) and make for convincing stories.

In terms of language, Herron invents (or seems to? who knows?) some new spy words: stoats, weasels, Dogs, joes, and the Enhanced Retirement Package.  And what I may love the most, that really good dialog you get in certain spy novels where they spell out how the either know things or have worked things out.  It's so cool and convincing and this trick has the reader convinced something special is happening.

In sum, go and read Mick Herron.  Just do it.  Start at the beginning with Slough Horses.  Buy a few of his books at a time as you will want to start the next as soon as you've finished your first one.

(Bonus: I was looking at the Summer reading issue of The Tablet and Herron gets recommended three times.